It was Super Bowl morning, and the airport was as dead as a Thanksgiving turkey. Where barely 12 hours earlier, the only way I could get into the air was by sitting at an intersection, engine running and whining to the tower, this day I practically owned the airport. The pattern, anyway. The airport itself was owned by the more than 208 jets and turboprops that had come into Scottsdale, Ariz., that morning and stayed—not to mention the dozens more that came, dropped off passengers, and then split. It had to be coincidental that across town, in the gleaming dome easily visible from the pattern, even though it was more than 20 miles away, the Giants and the Patriots were about to square off.
I can’t even begin to describe what the airport looked like as I taxied out. For the last couple of days, airport personnel had been scurrying around like ants preparing for winter, as they tugged all of the tenant airplanes parked on the various ramps of this huge airport (one 8,000-foot runway) into corners where they were clustered like bees. Some were even pulled off-airport and parked on private taxiways.
As I watched the airplanes get dragged around, I remember thinking, “What if they gave a Super Bowl and no one came?” What kind of intel told them they’d need so many acres of airplane parking for a sporting event all the way across town? At the time, I smirked to myself, “Dreamers! They think the world is going to come to their door because of a single football game. How presumptuous!” That morning, as I taxied out, I was no longer smirking. The entire world may not have been at their door, but that was only because they had no more parking places for the small amount of the world that wasn’t already parked on the ramp.
We’ve all seen pictures of aviation trade shows with lots of heavy iron in attendance, but most of us have never seen anything like this. The Kilo ramp, which is normally a long, skinny slab of mostly vacant concrete that’s home to a dozen or so Cessnas (and the occasional dying Piper), was much more than simply wing-to-wing jets. They had parked the heavies—the Gulfstreams (the ramp is barely a Gulfstream-and-a-half deep), the Challengers, etc.—tail into the fence as close as they dared pack them. Then, they stuffed the “little” jets—the Lears, Citations, etc.—into the “armpits” of the other airplanes. The result was approximately three-quarters of a mile of jets densely packed, two-deep.
The rest of the more normal ramps were parked the same way, with only a few feet separating the wingtips of the big guys from those of the little ones snuggling against them, as if seeking their warmth. In most places, they were three deep. Every nook and cranny that could hold a jet or turboprop was full. It was absolutely amazing!
The reason the airport was dead, while I was flying Sunday morning, was that the hard partying went on the night before, and no self-respecting CEO or Paris Hilton wannabe would have missed the festivities. So everyone who was going to come had already arrived. Plus, a massive (35-mile) TFR went into effect at 3 p.m. and lasted until 10:30 p.m. If you look at those times closely, you can easily deduce the next problem: No one could leave until the next morning, which is exactly when they all decided they had to get out of Dodge. Many of them, however, got no farther than the FBO lobby.
When I came out to fly the morning after the Super Bowl, most of those jets and turboprops that had been on the ramp were frantically trying to get onto the taxiway and were clamoring to get permission to start engines. The closest I could get to the end of the runway was about four taxiways from the end, but that was plenty. I was fairly certain I could urge my little red airplane into the air in the remaining 6,000 feet.
Incidentally, if you’re trying to sneak out of an intersection, and jets are cramming the taxiway, here’s a tip: The tower has to hold you for three minutes after a jet has taken off because of turbulence concerns. If you say, “I waive turbulence separation requirements,” they’ll let you go, and you’re on your own. If I hadn’t known that, I’d still be sitting there.
I knew things were screwed up, but I didn’t know to what degree until I came back in from another airport and tuned into ATIS. Its mechanical voice droned on and, among other things, said to expect a four-and-a-half-hour delay from when you request engine start and actually get it. Then, as I came up on ground frequency, I heard a pilot ask if he’d moved up on the list; the tower replied that he had, from 56 to 50. You could hear him groan over the radio.
The next day, one of the ground controllers told me delays had stretched out to more than seven hours because the ATC system just couldn’t absorb them all. This was all made tons worse by a substantial storm moving in from the Northwest. When it rains, it…well…it rains.
I’m severely sports-challenged, so I don’t see the allure of bowl games. Judging from the dozens of circus tents that popped up around town to house the various enormous parties, however, I’m in a small minority. Although, now that I think about it, it looks as if the primary function of bowl games is to provide a universally acceptable reason to party, and that I can understand.
When all the shouting was over, my daughter and son-in-law were bitterly disappointed at the outcome, my son and grandson were elated, and I was glad to see our airport come back down to normal crazy. I hope the Scottsdale tower and airport operations personnel got bonuses, because they certainly earned them. At the very least, Eight Papa Bravo thanks them all.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.